Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Conflict of Simplicities

It is difficult to determine how far to go back.  Do I just go back a few days to Paris, a place now laden with connotations of anxiety, heartache and uncertainty about what's next?  Or perhaps that shoreline on the Aegean in September? The Arab Spring? 2001? 1972? The Balfour Declaration? Whichever one we choose to go back to, there is the guarantee of bringing excess baggage that complicates the discussion at hand or ignoring details that oversimplifies, as has been the case in the last few days when so many politicians have made a point of muddying the line between refugees and terrorists and make the case that we needed to be protected from a group of people that at this moment is at its most vulnerable.

A too small a portion of the time line or the big picture has served to evoke emotions for the sake of a chosen expediency and stoked irrational thought at the exclusion of key details about what is happening and steering us away from a pursuit of the simple facts that need to be sorted through to allow us to proceed on the basis of what we as a society know rather than what we believe. In the wake of terrorist attacks such as that toxic, coordinated statement Friday, November 13, 2015 night or similar events in Bali, London, Ottawa, New York, Kenya and other places that comprise this bleak litany freedoms have been compromised as the flimsy case is made time and again that we are better off and safer with less freedom. There may be a case to be made in that matter but the argument often seems to be along the lines of, "If you have nothing to hide you should have nothing to worry about if we invade your privacy, (whether a little or a lot.)"

We have become less trusting of one another and we have directed our caution away from the thoughts we voice or support. Instead, we are cautious about who we extend our hands and hearts to. The events that grip the world these days become events that television was made for, occasions where we sit rapt and silent sponging up what has happened and hanging on updates with a hunger for a plot twist or other element that will sustain the drama.

None of these events are isolated from one another and none of them are given their fullest possible context because there is a reflexive desire for one set of victims and one set of bad guys without too many shades of grey in between. Time and time again, the simplistic definition of "other" misses the entire point. The region, country, or postal code that you come from does not determine your role in this unfolding drama. All of us, every last one of us -- from presidents and prime ministers, to perpetrators, mourners, mourned, a hopeful blogger and his 4-year-old who remains happily oblivious to this -- are bit players in what is unfolding and will continue to unfold.  The insistence that borders be closed to refugees is evidence of the short-sighted, misinformed stereotyping that we try to sway children from throughout their entire lives.

The insistence among purported "leaders" that refugees be turned away because they come from the same region, race or religion that these same "leaders" believe the terrorists came from makes a deliberate point of avoiding the facts to escalate public opinion and paranoia about how to protect people from the amorphous and ever-looming "them" that serves these fear-mongering politicians so well.  There is a convenience in branding and clustering people in a manner that invites a clamour for building walls, whether real or metaphorical.

Many people belief that they will be more secure by enveloping themselves in a brittle infrastructure and a policy framework that will do little but make fear more evident and tangible while ultimately failing to protect anyone from the threat that goes by the name of ISIS/ISIL, oh, sorry, this just in: they are now known as Daesh.

It has been made clear to us in tragedy after tragedy that our hearts are open and permeable organs that respond to the needs of other when we are made aware of them. Our communities must be just as open and responsive. Apart from the acts of terror that we have become to familiar with and too divided by, we have borne witness in the last decade to disasters and tragedies that have struck rich nations, poor and entire regions. Each time we have responded and, out of our collective compassion, done our very best to redistribute our wealth to the victims of these tragedies while we sat vigil before our televisions - not our most substantial and lasting of responses but we were moved enough at the time.

While the tangle of issues that began (in the short-term sense) in Syria and clustered in Paris a few days ago are far too controversial to capture in the soundbite realm, there are some basic elements that we need to regard as a touchstone in such times of certainty. The refugees are the brave, resilient, tenacious ones who are waking each morning with little certainty about what is next for them and getting through each day on the strength of their hope and their confidence in mankind to do the right thing.

They have the same simple desires and needs that people have always had safety, food, certainty and hopes for their children's wellbeing. They want to be masters of their own destiny as soon as possible and when they have the opportunity and support to achieve those their dreams they will have a transformative effect on their lives and the communities that accept them.  A scant few weeks ago it was heartwarming to see refugees welcomed as warmly as they were throughout Europe: a demonstration of compassion and wisdom that needs to be repeated regularly in the days and years ahead. Grounding ourselves in the simplicity of the lives and dreams of neighbours will provide us with much more guidance than the fact-deficient approaches of those who insist on fearing the weak.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Canada's Loving Embrace of Broad Horizons

It is more than a mere acknowledgement of our geography to suggest that Canada is a land of vast horizons.  The diversity of weather than we could boast to one another about or bemoan at any one time can be mind-blowing for people from smaller nations whether they are Luxembourg or Mali, but the more significant horizons are those of social possibility and potential that have urged us on in our ambitions of creating a more equitable and fair place to call not just our own, but our neighbours' as well.

It has been that way from the start as the English and French each took their turn to eke out a boreal survival of some sort in the face of the unfamiliar frigid winters and the inhospitable soils they may have relied on.  Alliances formed among neighbours and there was a sense of looking out for one another more often than not.  When the battle at the Plains of Abraham ended the way it did, there was little desire to put a foot on the throat of the vanquished and eliminate them.  Instead they were accommodated and out of that emerged a country that formed in peace, by negotiation and out of a recognition of common interests. We have ended up with a nation that has at its heart a dichotomy, or more realistically an embedded and enshrined robust diversity that has allowed it to ponder questions of identity, freedom and responsibility more carefully and thoroughly than a nation of people who go through life with uninformed certainty about similar questions.

We have not been without blemish and we have by no means been a perfect nation, but it has been a place where people have been able to call it home.  There are children who reach a moment in their lives where they grasp the concept of what a nation is and are thankful that by the accident of their birth, they have been able to call Canada of all places on earth, home. Others have had the less accidental opportunity to arrive here with their families and little more than the ambition to distance themselves from the troubles of the lands they have come from and contribute to Canadian society in a way that pays this nation back for everything that they have gained in it.

Despite the centuries that have passed since the baptism in fire of those winters which shamed European ones for their bitterness, there is a still a sense of cooperation and understanding of others and the recognition of the precedents that have been set by the neighbours or ethnic groups who have founded Canada and ensured that respect and careful consideration are central to the decisions we make and the place we take in the global society.

The robust dialogue about who we are and what we ought to be has long stood in the way of forming a definition of the Canadian identity because we aspired for it to be a deeply embedded and defined aspect of our life rather than something superficially defined by Mounties, hockey and maple syrup. We have shot for the moon in that definition and attached it to looking out for one another whether at home (medicare, official bilingualism and multiculturalism) or abroad (peacekeeping). We had long made a point of fighting the good fight because, for Canadians, the horizons of our potential were always a little broader and our ambitions directed us to pursue justice and imparted to us a strong sense of right versus wrong.  Outright victories have been rare, at least outside the hockey rink, but peacekeeping, for instance, was never about "the win." There was a commitment to those causes and a quiet confidence that came with the satisfaction in having those little eurekas that assured us that we were on the right track.  Along with it was an increased capacity and willingness to take the big picture into account, whether we were looking at where we were as a nation, or as a part of the global community.

There is a chance that you may read this and suggest that I have a remarkably naive or idealistic perception of what Canada is. There is even greater chance that I could be accused of holding onto a romantic image of this country that never existed. I am not suggesting that I am oblivious to the errors that our nation has made and I would be willing to discuss whether or not I am presenting an oversimplified account of what Canada was.

The problem that we are presented with is that whatever Canada means, whatever branding we may associate with those 6 letters, is that it is moving deeper and deeper into the past and becoming an increasingly remote vision of our future.

For the last ten years, our nation has been lead by a government that has sought to avoid the complex discussions that the notion of Canada would present to any other government who had an interest in the careful and protective stewardship of this country, the people who formed it and the commitments that those people had made over the centuries that have passed since the first explorers came here. Throughout the time that the Stephen Harper and his version of the Conservative Party of Canada - not the Tories, not the Progressive Conservatives, but a regressive group committed to the most narrow depiction of what these nearly 10,000,000 square kilometres north of the United States is or ought to be - has continually oversimplified the discussions of this nation and the principles that once stood for.

That oversimplification could be attributed to malice on the part of Stephen Harper and his right wing ideologues, but there is every chance that a country of this complexity, ambiguity and elegance is something that he has been truly overmatched and unprepared for.  The disposal of the long-form census that Statistics Canada had used for years is just one example of too many facts getting in Harper's way and diverting him from the certitude that he preferred to guide his rule with. Throughout the ten years of Conservative rule, the policies have been simplistic and the failure to recognize all of the aspects of the big picture has squandered the government's financial resources, its reputation at home and abroad.  All too often it has overlooked the partners who have contributed to the successful experiment that Canada had long been.

In consideration of the government's approval of Bill C-24 this past spring and the legislation allowing the government to strip citizenship from people who have been convicted of treason or terrorism is another example of the flaccid grasp the Conservatives have of either a big picture Canada or one of the ambitions and aspirations that have made this the pluralistic beacon that it has been. By building legislation on such evanescent, jello-to-the-wall terms as treason and terrorism there is the threat of consuming significant resources depending on how broadly or loosely the courts would define these terms.  On the other hand, the legislation seems to ignore the consequences of the public dissent that had been expressed by the Parti Quebecois or the Mohawks of Kanesatake during the Oka crisis. The reality is that C-24 would not likely have been introduced or used in such instances because those figures would have been too public and the divisiveness of trying to strip Quebec premiers or indigenous people of their Canadian citizenship would have seemed repressive. Further to that it would have been deemed political suicide for a prime minister or government who resorted to using it. We have tolerated dissent and discussion throughout our history and we have even let our fate be held in the hands of a small number amongst us via referendum. We have risked the consequences of free speech and protest because of a long-standing respect for due process, democracy and the value of what this nation has been built into and the safety, certainty and opportunity that it provides

Legislation such as C-24, as is often the case with the Conservatives, is aimed at the weak and seemingly powerless in the name activating support among those with a narrower vision of what Canada's achievements and potential. Cobbling together a pluralistic society such as ours is not an achievement to be sniffed at and it is not a project to be abandoned merely because of its complexity. Canada, as the world knows it, has been a flexible nation of ingenuity and great capability that has only recently shrunk away from the ambitions and ideals that it has long stood for and poured its energies into.

As the Conservatives create parallel campaigns to appeal to the various subgroups - rural, male, ethnic, non-ethnic, theological, libertarian - that they hope to cobble together, the incoherence of what they claim to stand for disintegrates in much the same way that they would like the nation to disintegrate. Governance by prosecution and tax-break will fall short of what Canada requires in the future and the Conservatives lack the principles, the intelligence and the ambition to do anything more than that.

If my characterization of Canada is inaccurate or one held by an insignificant minority with too much poetry or idealism in their souls, please feel free to opt for the small-minded vision the Conservatives offer.  If you feel that you are not informed enough to vote for someone else, at least vote against this mean-spirited approach. The Canada that I believe I was raised in was never as caught up in cynicism as it is now. More often than not, past governments have strived to build consensuses that put individual rights ahead of collective rights, but the Harper government - in either its ignorance or its blatant disregard of our heritage and the fabric of our society - has done the opposite. The Harper Conservatives' preference for collective rights - whether the rights of men over women, rich over poor, whites over indigenous, Conservative over non-Conservative, or other limited binary approach in their practice of favoritism - over individual rights has undermined their ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the entire nation.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Blue-Eyed Fundamentalists

As the polls for the 2015 election show that the Conservative Party of Canada is falling clearly out of the lead, the legacy of their tenure in power is settling hard on them. The problem for Stephen Harper during this campaign is that rather than hitting the hustings he has treated Canada to the hermetically isolated behaviour that he reserves for an environmental summit. (Sorry... summits)

Many people, including Conservative touchstones such as Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, have indicated that the CPC has done Canada and conservatism a disservice during their term in power and during their various iterations as the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and in power. The only ones who seem not to be speaking against him are those who are candidates for the Conservative Party in this election but they are not speaking at all.

The Harper government has been more guarded about its fundamentalist leanings and roots as approached and assumed power. Rather than becoming more moderate, their caution and discretion on issues that would draw the ire of voters (abortion) has been channelled into other areas, but good governance and leadership has not been one of those areas.  Ponder the following:

"The fundamentalist seeks to bring down ... freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, women's rights, pluralism...
The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties...

Salman Rushdie, 2001

Rushdie's words remain remarkably precise in describing fundamentalists and their inability or outright refusal to deal with the world in a manner that is flexible, tolerant and reflects a leadership approach or that integrates listening, reflecting and critical thought.  If you treated Rushdie's assessment as a checklist, Stephen Harper's Conservative Party has clearly met every requirement.

Consider the Harper government's:
-muting of scientists,
-the prorogation in 2008 when he tried to cut funding to other political parties (which he succeeded in doing after getting a majority); his party's ploys to basically cheat in elections and its dismantling of the mandate of Elections Canada, for catching them,
-his government's refusal to be held accountable over Afghanistan, spending and the undermining of programs and institutions that have been central to our understanding and attachment of this country,
-funding cuts to women's organizations throughout Canada, tying foreign aid to the insistence not to teach or support birth control and,
-the xenophobia that has guided immigration and refugee policy over the last ten years.
This is a far from comprehensive list.

Harper has demonstrated himself to be on the wrong side of countless issues, including - everyone's favorite no-brainer for 2015 - vaccination education. He has done battle with the Supreme Court, only to have his knuckles rapped time and again, but he continues to insist that he has a divine right to define Canada despite his inability to look beyond his beliefs and acknowledge the evidence that would guide a more worthy leader of this country.

Some people might muse and gossip about religious fundamentalism being central to Harper's rule and perhaps it is inappropriate to question his faith when pluralism would and ought to accommodate that. However, he has made it clear and clearer again that he has been and will continue to be fundamentalist in his antipathy toward the things that we, quite frankly, take for granted. We could continue to take Canada for granted as what we have perceive it to be and it now only was and NOT EXERCISE OUR RIGHT TO VOTE. Harper, with his not so quiet assault on suffrage, would be quite happy with that and on October 20 he will be rolling out a new "team" to proceed without interruption.
We deserve better and if we feel unable to vote FOR something, then it will be quite appropriate to vote AGAINST this government. I assure you that there is something quite positive in that course of action.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Nurturing the Creator

A few days ago I came across a rather familiar quote that had been recycled into an article about automation, "it is easier to destroy... than create..."

The ellipses leave out references to "jobs," but the modified phrase says a lot about the world we are living in.  As I pondered the phrase, it was easy to conjure variations about how it is easier to critique, easier to edit, hate and countless other variations on the phrase that provide a bit more encouragement to play it safe.

The creative urge lingers in most of us though, and we have doubts about those occasions when the creative impulse is ignored or muted in some way.  There is self-consciousness about the arrogance of referring to oneself as a creator, especially if you speak the word and make it much easier for a listener to attribute a capital "C" to the term. There is probably a priming aspect of daring to say the word that many of us fear giving breath to unless whispered in the privacy of the shower or some other solitary space.

As someone who can recall a childhood of doubt about having anything resembling an imagination or a creative impulse when staring at the blank page in Art class, whether it was Grade Three or Eight or struggling to capture anything other than my clearest thought with the words that came together in my head, it was easy to doubt that there was anything there - wherever the imagination was - worth tapping into, excavating and curating for anybody else to see, read or listen to. Actually there was plenty to be satisfied with in achieving "merely" that.

The doubt though, is firmly rooted in everyone and is likely the conjoined twin of the creativity that we are reluctant to engage with. You could ask yourself if there are any occasions when doubt looms its head that your are at least attempting something that you are deeply invested in, if not expressing yourself with. In all likelihood, it is the matter of confronting that conjoined pair that renders us reluctant. When first invited to visit or tap into our creativity, it is probably still a raw and unformed entity, bearing no resemblance to the mythological wellspring that so many famous, rich and successful artists have been able to steadily draw upon. We tend to overlook the troubled tortured ones, unless we have a fatal fascination with drummers, alcoholic one hit wonder novelists and pantheons of tragic 33- or 27-year-olds. The stakes are high, but the situation is not as precarious as it appears based on the more famous anecdotes of artistic discovery.

There is the need to separate doubt from creativity and perhaps it is an involved and complex task. Those entwined bedfellows need to be separated time and again. The reality may be that that completely separating them would be dangerous. Imagine the art of someone who proceeded with absolutely no doubt about their talent or the quality of whatever they churned out?

Those are the terms of battle whenever you try to create. The doubt is - in all likelihood - an intrinsic part of your creativity, or central to the history of your efforts to access and nurture your creativity. Doubt needs to be tamed or muted long enough and often enough to wedge that gate open and allow you the receptivity or productivity required to achieve something that resonates with you as a piece that has been invested with your soul and the life experience that you have accumulated to this point of your life. Given the myth of god-given talent visiting only a few of us on this earth and the doubt that so many other people voice when you embark on the process or, daresay, the dream, it is important to thicken the skin, bolster the spine and remain open in the pursuit of your art or self-expression.

It is vital to keep stimulating your senses with the material that you can draw upon in your pursuit. As someone who has spent my adult life trapped between passions for photography and writing it has been difficult to make up my mind a commit entirely to one.  After years of trying to make up my mind, I have decided that it is a matter of keeping a balance between the two. With the camera the doubts can be overcome quickly and on a basis of every few minutes as I pause and regard my surroundings with an open eye.  When writing there is the task of integrating ideas, thoughts and sources from far beyond the place where I sit and look within rather than beyond.  I also look to structure and build something that requires more planning and consideration.  Thanks to the differences between those two passions, I can find stimulation for either medium from more sources and I am that much more motivated at this time of my life to examine creativity from a broader perspective that applies to both pursuits rather than narrowing my vision to one area.

It is vital to recognize new inspirations as soon as we encounter them and capture them in whatever way we can to work with them. In some cases, it is valuable to look into the approaches of other artists and investigate their artist statements, their strategies or daily routines and adopt similar approaches if they work for you.

There are other inspirations as well. In my case, photo galleries, the written word, an immersion into a peace of music that takes you mentally to a certain place of inspiration, contemplation or the adrenalin to produce are just a few forms of inspiration that work for me and I know that each can serve me in the pursuit of continuing a work that I am in the middle of.

The more important thing is to build yourself up on a regular basis acknowledge that doubt is there, do battle with it as it is express within or by others who may be inclined to ridicule you or suggest that there is something futile in trying to create or that your work is not entirely original.  All of the voices that fire their bull shit at you, including your own, are eroding you and it is tempting to give into them or find a cheap or approach to help you mute the doubts. Faced with that cacophony and the temptation, it is vital to reward yourself.  It is probably best to reward yourself after achieving a certain milestone in the process rather than treat yourself beforehand. There will be some satisfaction in the achievement of those little milestones, especially if you knock it out of the park every once in a while. There will be reward in the work itself, but it never hurts to throw yourself a bone as well.

You have to get to it, though.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Creativity Habit

The creative impulse has beat on a regular basis throughout my life, more notably during my adult life than during my childhood when the imagination is supposedly a hotbed of bubbling creative activity.  By my own account I had more deep thoughts than creative impulses and with the ideas that I did have, execution might have been an issue.  Ultimately, I discovered that words or image were more of my medium than anything else and the idea of making anything other than a house or what every a Lego kit was meant to build brought on a great deal of anxiety.

Still the creative impulses occurred often enough to get a few poems published over the course of the years that have passed and I have come up with some good ideas for stories to develop.  The photography that has been a passion ever since I was 12 has been a productive activity and an opportunity to express my vision or perspective.  There were stretches of my life when I was able to shoot 3-4 hours a day, a rate that still strongly informs the way I work with the camera despite not spending as much time with the craft as I once did.

At the same time there was a lot of story ideas that welled up and showed promise but never took the full form that they needed to develop to their full potential.  Summers would be set aside to finish a project and projects would indeed get done but there was not much response for all the effort I made to get them "out there."  There were plays, novels, short stories, screenplays and more than all had potential to come together and for the few occasions where something got finished, there was the lingering feeling that there was something missing and the response when I tried to get feedback was an indicator that something was missing as well.

The writing was laborious as I would stare at a sentence and move it around and try to fix the writing on that micro level without getting very far with other questions that were facing me.  The hard drive didn't exactly fill but there were plenty of files that grew in size and word count without promising to amount to much.

At the age of 48, married and with an energetic, very boyish 3 year old taking a big part of my time and life there was an acknowledgement that the passion to write was still there but that it wasn't going to happen they way I had once imagined.

But it had to happen.

After psyching myself up for a few months with books like Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, the blessed discovery of Brenda Ueland's If You Want To Write and a steady diet of novelists who have emerged as my favorites, my mind blowers and the deft masters to look up to - not to mention a steady diet of children's books about fire stations with maddeningly zero variety from the go put out a fire and put out another one plot lines that they all stick to - I had to get back at it.

Rather than quitting the job with the promise to pound something out by the end of winter or blocking off 6 to 36 hours of my weekend to stare at the computer monitor while my urge to defrost the refrigerator ticked upward, I had to be reasonable and start with forming a habit and proving to myself that I indeed had the discipline to do something other than stare at my computer with the hope that the most sterling sentences this side of Carol Shields were suddenly pouring off my forehead with the sweat.  I had to manage enough with a little portion of the day to see if I could make progress.  Here is what I built my routine around:

1. Set a reasonable goal - To form the habit, you have something that you can achieve consistently. I knew that I was not going to come up with the 3-4 hours I was once able to find for my photography so I started out with 1000 words a day regardless of what I'd written the day before.  Most nights, I manage to get it done in 30 to 45 minutes.

2. Make yourself accountable - The accountability simply creates a small network of people who are checking in on your progress and perhaps even getting on your back if you drop the routine.  I would cryptically post my word count at the end of each day on Facebook and after a few days people were asking, "What's with the numbers?" After I explained I struck a bit of curiosity on their part and even came up with a few allies.  One friend, a fellow writer, has liked each update over the last few months.  I haven't had anyone ask about missed days yet, which was what I was hoping for, but I haven't missed too many days in a row at any one stretch.

3. Never censor and edit later... much later - At this stage the goal is flow.  There has probably been a lot of dross in there but there are a few nuggets every couple of days that with a bit of a polish and a different perspective in a few months time might amount to something a little tighter or stronger.  My goal has been just to get my fingers moving and keep them moving even though I know it is crap.  It is a matter of getting through that crap or getting it out of my system to unearth things that are beneath those layers.  One example tonight from a description of air travel:

He either mastered the calm of that netherworld state of air travel and whatever happens to you when all you stare at for hours are the stars, the expanse of the Pacific or the ocean of cloud that separates you from your bearings with a fractal collage of mists and molecules of water and the new toxins that suspended in it -  the arbitrary appearance of the texture and sculpture of each bit of cloud a mystery in its formation and for that everything and nothing to contemplate as the data on the flight tells the fatalists that they would assuredly freeze to death at this altitude before there was any chance of them making impact with the "real" world below.

In a few months, when I go back look at this from a different perspective and with a better sense of what the whole thing is supposed to be, I'll elevate the vocabulary a little bit and make this a little clearer or tighter.  If I tried to do that tonight, I may have been hung up on an earlier sentence that I was trying to perfect rather than blasting through it and coming up with a passage that was no where in my thoughts earlier in the day.

As far as not censoring yourself, it has helped me come up with characters or situations that are rather unsavoury.  I've probably fallen victim to having too many nice protagonists without the flaws that make them real.  Pour your nastiness into your story and then shrug and say, "He (she) was the SOB of the story.  The story needed it.  I don't know anyone like that!"

4. Lay the stone before you carve it - The other thing about that commitment to getting the words out of yourself is that it ultimately moves you toward a process that is in keeping with the plastic arts. A stone carver works and chipping away the inessential to release their vision from their medium. With writing, I long acted as if a first draft had to have a begin, middle and end in that order.  I have probably written similar scenes or described the same setting a few times over.  It may feel redundant but there is a chance that if you keep going back to it you are visiting a setting or scene that is vital to your story and the more versions you have of it the more options you will have when it comes to putting things together.  I briefly tried putting things in a certain order but after a week or ten days I abandoned that in favour of filling one file for the sake of having everything in one place.  I may have a massive challenge putting things in an order I like but filmmakers are rarely compelled to shoot the film in the order they wish us to see it.  Give yourself plenty to chip away at.

5. Bring on the input - I do not mean to ask for people to peer over your shoulder and clear their throat constantly but simply to be aware of things that are sparking your imagination.  Whether it is stuff you are reading, experiences out of your daily routine or something else entirely file it and find a way to work it into what you are writing.  Be a bit more attuned to those things and if you need to jot down a note for something to work into your writing when you sit down good.  My worst habit for the longest time was to note something mentally and go, "I'll write that later," and get to it absolutely never.  On one occasion, the words "the telepathy of small towns" from a novel prompted me on a long passage about foreigners some how communicating wordlessly and knowing what one another are thinking in an immigration line in a Japanese airport.  On another occasion a conversation with a friend at work inspired a lot of depth to one of the characters that I had not given much thought to.

The interesting thing with this aspect of the habit is that it has not been focused exclusively on the writing. Ideas and questions emerge out of interactions at work and give me something to chew over and give a bit more heft to as conversations unfold and ideas get worked through that previously may not have been given more than passing consideration. 

6. Roll with it - Not every night is going to be brilliant.  Some nights I drag myself to that 1000th word and feel that I could hit the delete button and not lose anything of value. There are others where I channel my state of mind and whatever happened to me that day or came together in my head and it clicks.  There are some nights when the rut cannot be escaped and I simply put the headphones on, crank up some music and it is more like air piano than anything.  I push along to get the words out in time with the music and it blows the gunk out and loosens me up.  There is no telling when the gold starts coming out again, but I'll meet the goal for the night and move on.  The editing will be the key.  In his Inner Game of Tennis and Inner Game of Work, Timothy Gallwey talks about your inner critic gradually getting pushed to the background to let your more intuitive or expressive sides gaining the free range to express and produce in ways that align your talents and ambitions more freely.  Muting the dialogue with your inner critic takes time and practice and the more often you roll through those fallow periods, the better the productivity becomes.

7. Repeat - When I started this process nearly five months ago I just wanted to see if I could generate 1000 words a day without it disrupting my life too much.  For the most part I've kept it up and I am at a point where I can miss a day or two without concern that the whole routine will go all to hell. Editing will be more challenging without the quantitative measures but I'll worry about that then.  Over the course of the past five months I've been able to plug away at the start or the end of the day when the lad is in bed and my wife is as well or she is winding down for the night.  In the space of that time I've written over 165000 words or 420 pages.  It is not in any shape to show anyone right now, but there is probably more quality in there and a better sense of story than there would have been if I started with a clear path to plot climax in mind and tried to string together the perfect sequence of words to achieve it.

The creative process is rarely going to be pristine and ordered and it is freeing to take an approach that allows you to be active in the pursuit rather than passive and hopeful that it will come out fully formed as if it were dictated to you whole.  As you work toward completing that work there is greater chance that - if you are open and receptive to the experiences you had or are having - you will generate momentum and feel that the manuscript and the process are gelling in a way that will become coherent meaningful and reflective the voice that you are trying to write in.

To be continued...

and edited.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Does Dalhousie Graduate Professionals or Merely High-Income Earners?

The misogynous Facebook group of Dalhousie University dental students has remained seemingly unresolved as the 2014-15 academic year winds to its conclusion.  At this point the students who were suspended from participating in their clinic practice have been reinstated and the whistleblower who revealed the group remains suspended.  Since the Facebook group was revealed and the students were suspended in December, it has seemed that the students have been treated with their well-being of the primary concern, taking priority over the reputation of the entire class, the university and perhaps the dental profession as well.

As the end of the school year approaches and the students proceed to complete their clinical work and lectures, the impression is left that Dalhousie University administration has been focused on allowing the members of the Class of DDS 2015 Gentleman every opportunity to ensure they retain their right to earn the commensurate income their degree would defer them rather than upholding the standards and the Code of Ethics that professionals ought to live up to.  Perhaps there has been something constructive that came of Dalhousie's application of restorative justice in dealing with these men.  The use of restorative justice may be an appropriate option to a swifter, more retributive response such as that by Oklahoma University President David Boren this week when dealing with the racist leaders of the campus fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

My feeling though is that the retributive justice option may been employed to circle the wagons and ensure that the Gentlemen have the opportunity to hold onto the income earning potential they hold so dear, attribute their behaviour to a dose of mob mentality and others rather than taking or bearing any true responsibility for their actions.  One may accuse me of wanted a more public response to this out of my own sense of retribution.  However, the whistleblower's disproportionate time in the spotlight during this affair and the conditions with which he is required to comply certain suggest that an old boy's club is calling the shots and protecting the Facebook group and perhaps the university faculty as well rather than the profession that these young men aspire to belong to.  Given the lack of standards that these young men seem capable of rising to, Dalhousie University's actions indicate a lack of understanding that they are responsible for training these students to join a profession rather than merely get a job.

All of the stick-handling that has been done since the Dalhousie University scandal began in December seems to have been aimed at ensuring that as many of the students as possible manage to graduate and perhaps, not coincidentally, narrow the university's mandate to getting its students into the workforce as efficiently as possible.  The options to this are to graduate humane, sensitive, civil professionals who demonstrate compassion for others that goes well beyond complying with the code of conduct or code of ethics of the professional college or association that will confer upon them their right to practice as dentists.  Dalhousie University ought to aspire to do more than merely train its students to -- as Dal alum Hugh MacLennan stated in his 1960 essay, "The Classical Tradition and Education" -- "qualify for the higher income brackets."  In this sense, the leadership at Dalhousie University has best succeeded in avoiding the task of setting a standard that they would want their graduates to maintain when they enter this profession.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bravery Reconsidered: A Reflection on My Teaching Career

I talk about the topic of bravery reluctantly, in part because of the number of times people suggested that I was brave to teach in the Arctic for two years. The first handful of reader of this blog, those who stumble upon it through my posting of it on Facebook or Twitter will know more about my experience teaching in the Arctic and a few of them also have read my memoir of that time as well. During those two years I was regularly complimented for my apparently bravery in going there and it was something I regularly shrugged off, concluding that it was inappropriate to be considered brave for facing someone else's fears.  Alternatively, it is inaccurate to be described as brave when doing something you had the equipment or clothing to do.

In many instances there were people who suggested that it was brave to merely brave the elements of the Arctic. However, the extreme weather gear that I had separated me from those elements quite easily and I confidently and comfortably made my walk to school in -40 temperatures or colder.  As the daylight disappeared for a few months during the depths of winter, it was gradual. The darkness amounted to a prolonged period of daylight for a few hours a day without the bright sun appearing over the horizon and making itself known for a few months. Thanks to the gradual transition to that darkness the reaction to it was akin to a boiled frog - I essentially wasn't aware of what was happening and consequently did not react in fight or flight manner.  I simply got up each day and worked through the physiological responses to the darkness because I did not know any better.

Despite the physical challenges from the climate and locale, the professional challenges that I faced in the classroom and the privations that came with not having a convenience store or a working bathroom nearby, none of these made me particularly brave. I have been reluctant to declare myself brave for any of those things.  "Brave" is entirely the wrong word if we are going to talk about someone going 3-4 months without a toilet or 10 months without a television, especially when one had the choice to do otherwise.

There were threats during the time that I was in the community and the classroom there and I pondered them and weighed there significance as well as I could and in those cases, determined, undaunted or foolish might be better terms than brave.

My bravest moment may have been the one when I exposed my weaknesses or my vulnerability to my students.  There was a moment in the classroom when I set aside all notions of authority in the classroom and stopped pretending that the curriculum that I was teaching them was somehow appropriate to their needs.  Instead of trudging along through the curriculum confident that the Ministry of Education for the province of Quebec dictated to be as appropriate for my kids as it was for kids in Montreal, I stopped and asked the kids, "What do you want me to teach you?" - an admission that my charade as the authority who knew either a) exactly what they needed to learn or b) enough about education to come up with the ideal match for their lives and traditions without their input.  I gave them input into what had to happen in their classroom and they promptly and seamlessly transitioned in a matter of seconds from "empty vessel" or "blank slate" to partner in defining what they needed and made profound contributions as soon as given the opportunity.

I did not know what the outcome would have been when I asked that question or disclosed that I did not have all the answers, but the consequences were remarkable and beautiful.  And they resulted from me simply disclosing what I was not capable of figuring out for myself.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Precision and Satire

The discussion of free speech that has opened up since the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has not given much airing to the notion of responsibility when exercising free speech.  The most biting and effective satire has been thought-provoking and informed or guided by intentionality. With the cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo and perhaps the cartoons in a Danish publication in 2006 there may have been provocation, but not of thought.

The finest satire, even that targeted at religion, is informed by insights and a desire to make useful, constructive observations that are intended to amuse, provoke and critique.  Sacred cows are not spared and should not be, but the problem with the cartoons is that they seem to exercise the desire and opportunity to offend rather than to give people something to talk about.

Apart from the known and established umbrage that Muslims take upon the attempt to illustrate the prophet Muhammed the cartoonists offer no insights or demonstrate the knowledge required to offer the depth and precision of satire that comes from a perspective of communicating criticism.  In the cases of the cartoons that have been at the center of the controversy there is little constructive criticism.  Instead, the cartoons - apart from giving a poke in the eye to Muslims - demonstrate little insight about the Muslim faith or its foibles.  There is just the type of blatant stereotyping that we have collectively opposed for other groups.

The best satire is informed and while there may be a temptation among partisans to deny the truth which is often at its heart, it is still going to tap into a fountain of truth that will be begrudgingly acknowledged.  If the Muslim faith is going to be satirized as effectively as other faiths, ideologies or obsessions that it needs to be founded on a body of knowledge.  For all the navel-gazing on the topic of free speech that has emerged since the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there ought to be a consideration of what is being discussed, who is discussing it, whether or not they have any skin in the game and if they know what they are actually talking about.